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A new vision for school leadership

PrichComOn October 15, I was honored to participate in a panel discussion on “New Visions for School Leadership” at the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence’s annual meeting in Lexington. My fellow panelists included Jennifer Carroll, project director for the Appalachian Leadership Lab at the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative; Ron Chi, chief academic officer for Kentucky State University and the Frankfort Independent schools; and former superintendent Carol Johnson, executive director of New Leaders. Our moderator was Dave Adkisson, president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. The panel discussion was lively and enlightening, and the one-on-one conversations with participants and guests afterward was even richer.

We covered a wide range of topics, including principal preparation, strategies to support and sustain effective school leadership, and the mindset shifts required for turning around low-performing schools and making schools more responsive to their communities. I emphasized the need for truly visionary leadership from school principals, who unfortunately often fall into a passive role, waiting for the local or state board of education to dictate their next moves. Instead, we need school leaders who have such a clear and compelling vision of effective teaching that, even when the state curriculum or accountability system changes, they never lose their focus on transforming everyday classroom instruction.

Afterward I thought of several very specific policy issues that would contribute greatly to the on-going discussion about improving school leadership. For example, in 2014 the Thomas B. Fordham Institute produced an excellent report called Lacking Leaders: The Challenges of Principal Recruitment, Selection, and Placement. The report makes several thoughtful recommendations, including increasing principal salaries to make them commensurate with other organizational leaders of similar responsibility; giving principals more autonomy in personnel and aspects of school management and instructional leadership; and improved data tracking to identify the best principal candidates and assess their impact on student learning over time. In Kentucky, I believe there is wide variation in the quality of principal preparation programs, and better data on outcomes might help distinguish between those that are truly preparing aspiring leaders to a sufficient level and those who provide coursework with little rigor or challenge.

Also, Kentucky currently requires candidates to have a Master’s degree before they begin principal certification coursework. This well-intentioned policy was designed to increase the number of certificate holders who are actively interested in serving in leadership roles, and to ensure aspiring administrators are somewhat more seasoned in their careers before launching into the principalship. The real effect, however, is that it has (at least in my experience) greatly restricted the pool of applicants for principal certification. I routinely turn down inquirers to our WKU program because they don’t have a Master’s degree already (or did a planned fifth- or sixth-year program for Rank II, which does not qualify).

The policy also restricts the opportunities for principals to earn advanced degrees and certifications, since by the time they finish their principal requirements they will have earned a Rank I or more. And as Katrina Boone, director of teacher outreach at the Collaborative for Student Success, pointed out to me in a Twitter discussion on this topic, requiring a Master’s degree before principal certification may present unintentional burdens on teachers of color or others with financial hardships.

I understand the potential advantages of having the principalship be a post-Master’s training program, but the negatives outweigh any benefits. We need a Master’s degree option for initial principal certification in Kentucky, and as my colleague Justin Bathon from the University of Kentucky pointed out (also on Twitter), perhaps even programs that lead directly from a bachelor’s degree straight into a Doctorate of Educational Leadership.

In terms of leadership development for practicing principals, I'm very excited about work I've been doing with various colleagues around executive coaching. Using a framework that originated from my dissertation research, we've developed a coaching protocol designed to help school principals strengthen their instructional leadership. You can read about this coaching process in our 2012 article in Qualitative Research in Education, but I've just had another paper accepted for publication in the International Journal for Mentoring and Coaching in Education, co-authored with WKU professor Tom Stewart and doctoral candidate Sara Jennings. I'll update with links to that article when it appears.

I was able to share with the Prichard Committee some news about how Western Kentucky University is making our own contribution to the effort of improving school leadership both in terms of preparation and support for on-the-job administrators. Last week we announced a major grant award from the Wallace Foundation to rethink and redesign our principal preparation program. WKU’s Department of Educational Administration, Leadership, and Research was one of seven university programs across the country selected for this initiative. We will partner with districts from the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative (GRREC) in this endeavor. Our goal is to update the curriculum of our program to reflect the latest standards of effective school leadership, and to create more personalized, competency-based models of learning that mirror the kinds of instructional delivery and assessment we hope to see in 21st century P-12 schools. We want personalization, innovation, and design thinking to be central in the preparation of aspiring principals.

And, responding to some of the recommendations of the Fordham report noted above, we will be working closely with districts to create data systems allowing us to following aspiring leaders from their first interest, through their preparation program, and into the early years of their administrative careers so that their professional growth needs can be monitored and supported.

The challenges of school leadership are legion, but I’m consistently impressed with the talented teacher leaders who come to WKU for principal preparation. With the support of groups like the Prichard Committee, I believe we can grow deeper pools of future school leaders who will thrive professionally and be the catalysts for improved student learning.

Usual disclaimer: Opinions expressed on this blog are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Western Kentucky University (my employer) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member).

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